Leading Article: Make friends with the driver

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The Independent Online
For a century, society has been designed around the needs of the car: they are an integral part of our lives and our environment. But imagine city streets without them, not just the cars occupied by sad, angry drivers moving (or not moving) in the traffic lanes, but the empty ones cluttering kerbs and forecourts of buildings and restricting access. Consider how much of the national heritage, natural and man-made, would improve without the relentless pounding of traffic and the clutter of street furniture. Then there is the hidden intrusion - the pollution, the accidents, the health effects of sedentary lives, the imprisonment of children, the immobility of the few caused by the mobility of the majority.

It was predictable that John Prescott's Green Paper would have to both acknowledge the car's domination and attempt to challenge it. Thus he tacitly accepts that most people will continue to use their cars much of the time. With two-thirds of households having access to a car, he could not attack car ownership as such. Instead he has targeted the two- car family. In such a household one person should have the car, the other should use public transport. It sounds a plausible place to start. But is it?

No, this is ill-thought-out, off-the-cuff politics. Which is the "first" car in a household and which is the "second"? In many households the first car is the commuting car, the second car is the work-horse that shops, ferries children and transports elderly relatives, usually to the parts that an inadequate public transport system cannot reach. The second car, in short, is the woman's car. Nor, with two-car families accounting for only a tenth of all households, is the second car even the problem that Mr Prescott suggests.

Most unconvincing of all, however, is the premise of this Green Paper, that we need another transport debate. We had a desultory one under the Tories two years ago. The solutions are broadly known and almost all involve upsetting car drivers. What is lacking is a sense of crisis. Asked about Paris which, suffering its worst ever smog last week, had reduced fares by half in order to attract motorists to the Metro, Mr Prescott said this could not be done in London because the Underground did not have the capacity. And yet he is advocating public transport for half the population.

There are things to welcome: for example in his promotion of safer routes to school, building cycle and bus lanes, regulating bus services outside London (since deregulation outside the capital a decade ago, bus use has dropped by almost a third while in London it has grown by 10 per cent), creating a strategic rail authority to plan new lines and routes (currently there isn't one). But it must be said that these solutions have been well- aired and debated already. As the Independent's Christian Wolmar points out in a Friends of the Earth pamphlet published this week, transport decisions are made by millions of individuals in particular circumstances. Government's role is to change the circumstances and influence these daily decisions by making it an easier choice for people to walk, cycle, or use public transport.

It will take all these proposals just to ensure that there are no extra cars on the road. Mr Prescott is still left with the problem of how to turn round the current situation.

Two things are needed. Money and planning. This is a Government that has problems with money, but it can work as both carrot and stick. Charge for road space and reduce public transport fares. The first can begin to pay for the second as has been demonstrated in Oslo where motorists are charged about pounds 1 every time they enter the city centre. Planning also has two facets. First, we need an overall transport plan, not just for major schemes but for that important task of influencing transport decisions. Secondly, land-use policies need to be tailored to transport needs, as Mr Prescott's predecessor, John Gummer, advocated.

These kinds of policies require courage, not further debate. The motorist, an animal the Government clearly finds as fearsome as it finds the taxpayer, will almost certainly be alienated. But motorists are not only motorists; they are parents, too, maybe of asthmatic children; they have concerns for their own health and for the environment; for some of the day they are pedestrians, and they may even be occasional users of public transport. In these capacities they are not the ferocious enemy Mr Prescott believes: they are his allies.